Nigel Slater’s Christmas cake recipe (2024)

Lighter than the one my mother made. The fruit is not so much currants, as golden sultanas, dried apricots and dark seedy figs. There are hazelnuts too, toasted, halved, and proper candied peel, pale citron and darker orange. The recipe has been made countless times, not only by me but by readers and friends.

A family cake (this makes a 20cm cake)
butter 250g
light muscovado sugar 125g
dark muscovado sugar 125g
shelled hazelnuts 100g
dried fruits – ready-to-eat prunes, apricots and figs, candied peel, glace cherries 650g in total
eggs 3 large
ground almonds 65g
vine fruits – raisins, sultanas, currants, dried cranberries 350g in total
brandy 3 tbsp, plus extra to feed the cake
orange finely grated zest of 1
lemon finely grated zest of 1
baking powder ½ tsp
plain flour 250g
apricot jam

For the almond paste (to cover a 20–22cm cake generously)
icing sugar 250g
ground almonds 500g
egg 1 large
lemon juice 2–3 tbsp

You will need a deep, 20cm-diameter round cake tin with a removable base, lined with lightly buttered baking parchment.

Lining the tin: Using the base of the cake tin as a template, cut a disc of baking parchment to fit neatly into the base. Now cut a long, wide strip that will fit not only around the inside of the tin, but a good 9cm above it. (For a 20cm cake tin that will be 66cm.) Place it around the inside of the tin.

Making the cake: Set the oven at 140C fan/gas mark 3. Using a food mixer and a flat paddle beater attachment, beat the butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Don’t forget to push the mixture down the sides of the bowl from time to time with a rubber spatula. Toast the hazelnuts in a dry pan until light brown, then cut each one in half.

While the butter and sugars are beating to a cappuccino-coloured fluff, cut the dried fruits into small pieces, removing the hard stalks from the figs. Break the eggs into a small bowl, beat lightly with a fork, then add a little at a time to the butter mixture, beating continuously. (If it curdles, add a little flour.)

Slowly mix in the ground almonds, toasted hazelnuts and all the dried and vine fruits, the brandy and citrus zest and juice. Now mix the baking powder and flour together and fold them lightly into the mix. Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, smooth the top gently, and put it into the oven.

Leave the cake for about an hour. Then, without opening the door, turn the heat down to 130C fan/gas mark 2 and continue cooking for an additional one and a half hours.

Check whether the cake is done by inserting a skewer, or a knitting needle, into the centre. It should come out with just a few crumbs attached to it, no trace of raw cake mixture. Take the cake out of the oven and leave to cool before removing it from the tin.

Feeding the cake: If you make the cake early enough, or at least a month before you need it, you get the opportunity to “feed it” with alcohol. Most people use brandy, though I have known those who prefer rum. The trick is to pierce the base of the cake several times with a skewer, then spoon brandy into the holes. I have never found a skewer wide enough so tend to prefer a thin, ie Japanese, chopstick.

Once the cake is completely cool, remove the paper from the base and pierce all over with a skewer or knitting needle. Spoon over enough brandy to moisten the cake but not to make it soggy – I suggest three or four tablespoons at a time. Don’t use your best cognac. Wrap the cake in greaseproof paper and tin foil and store in a cake tin. Feed the cake every few days with the same amount of brandy.

Making the paste: I make my own almond paste in a deep, wide mixing bowl, my biggest in fact. This is because no matter how careful I am, the icing sugar, when sifted, tends to fly everywhere. I do sift the sugar too.

Sift the icing sugar into a bowl and stir in the ground almonds. Break the egg into a small bowl and beat lightly for just long enough to mix the white and yolk. I find the mixing easiest using a food processor with a flat paddle. Add to the almonds and sugar, then introduce enough lemon juice, little by little, to bring the mixture to a stiff, smooth paste firm enough to roll.

Bring together into a ball, then turn out on to a wooden board dusted lightly with icing sugar. Roll into a fat cylinder or cake and wrap in kitchen parchment or clingfilm.

I rather like the pure, spartan effect of a cake covered only with marzipan. If you use golden icing sugar your paste will have a soft, honey-coloured hue, like that of antique linen. Even the most hardened minimalist will agree such a cake needs something in the way of decoration. Marzipan stars of differing sizes pressed on to the smooth almond paste can look suitably festive, especially if their edges are blowtorched here and there.

It may be wise to buy your almond paste ready-made, the results being both easier to roll and available in a variety of colours, some of which are actually appropriate. (No one wants a blue Christmas cake.) The trick when making your own is to get the proportions of almond, egg and sugar in perfect harmony, otherwise it will be either too sticky to roll or too crumbly to lift on to the cake.

Mary Berry says you need 675g of paste to cover the top and sides of the cake. My love of marzipan requires a slightly more generous layer. It takes 300g of almond paste to ice the top of a 20cm round cake. Less if you want a thin layer. The sides take a further 500g. Only you know how much you like almond paste.

You will need jam too, not much, less than half a jar of apricot.

Covering the sides: I find it easier to put the almond paste in place on the sides of the cake using two shorter lengths of paste rather than doing battle with one ridiculously long one. Those more dextrous than I will probably do it in one go. I use a light dusting of icing sugar to stop it sticking to the work surface.

Measure the circumference of the cake with a piece of cotton or string. Roll a strip of almond paste the same length as the string, and the same width as the height of the cake. (For a 20cm cake this will be about 66cm long and 9cm high.) Brush the sides of the cake with apricot jam, then lift the cake on to its edge and first roll then press the strips into place, trimming as necessary.

Join the strips by pressing lightly with your thumbs, bearing in mind that the sides will be covered with icing.

Covering the top: Roll out the remaining almond paste with a rolling pin on a work surface lightly dusted with icing sugar. Using the base of the cake tin as a template, cut a disc of paste that fits the top of the cake.

Brush the surface of the cake with apricot or gooseberry jam (you need a tart fruit to contrast with the sweet icing), then lower the almond paste into place. Smooth flat with the palm of your hand or, using very light pressure, with a rolling pin.

Leave the paste to dry overnight in a cool place before lowering carefully into a biscuit tin and covering with a lid. Should you not have a spare cake tin, you can wrap the cake loosely in baking parchment, then in foil. It is rather important that the cake is stored somewhere cool and dry, otherwise the covering will turn sticky. Four days is about the right time to allow the covering to dry out. If you ice it too soon the marzipan will show through.

From The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater (HarperCollins Publishers, £26). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

Nigel Slater’s Christmas cake recipe (2024)
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